Rewriting labour movement history

August 3, 1994

By Joan Coxsedge and Gerry Harant

The ongoing process of rewriting the history of Australia's labour movement pervades David McKnight's book Australian Spies and Their Secrets, reviewed by Green Left Weekly some weeks ago.

The book is based on recently released, heavily censored material from ASIO archives as well as conversations with selected ASIO personnel. The list of 40 ASIO names and addresses which McKnight used, as he rather grudgingly acknowledges, was given to him at his request by CAPP, the Committee for the Abolition of Political Police.

We compiled this list in the 1970s as part of a much wider campaign to focus attention, not only on ASIO, but on the role of secret agencies in general and their influences on Australian political life. Significantly, McKnight translates CAPP as the Committee Against Political Police, a Freudian slip perhaps, considering that he carefully avoids putting the abolition case.

Using ASIO people as informants is risky business and appears to have compromised his writing.

To begin with, he accepts the old discredited furphy that ASIO was established because of a "security leak in high government circles to Russia", when it resulted from a complex chain of events involving jealousy between the CIA and the US Navy jockeying for power at the beginning of the Cold War.

McKnight also implies that the newly established ASIO started life with a clean slate. Implicit in his chapter headed "Labor's Security Service" is the assumption that it was a neutral body friendly to the labour movement. He ignores the fact that ASIO inherited some 300,000 dossiers compiled by an earlier gaggle of pro-fascist security agencies which, immediately after the war, were consolidated into the equally anti-left Commonwealth Investigation Service.

He accepts ASIO's distorted version of its role as being purely anti-communist valiantly protecting us from Soviet espionage, when this was an excuse to net in any organisation or individual even mildly critical of the status quo. As part of Washington's Cold War hate campaign, ASIO's use of the communist smear and innuendo badly damaged, not only individuals, but the political life of the country, which was its main purpose.

But McKnight's refloating of Petrov mythology, when the whole episode was a put-up job, obviously appealed to Gerard Henderson of the far-right Sydney Institute and Robert Manne, editor of Quadrant and writer on the Petrov affair, who both glowingly praised the book.

As for McKnight's acceptance of Petrov as a "spymaster", there is a body of circumstantial evidence which suggests that Petrov was more likely to have been a Soviet plant. This would account for the way the Soviet Embassy tolerated his excessive drinking, sly grog selling and frequent and blatant liaisons with King's Cross prostitutes.

Given Australia's involvement in nuclear and missile testing and its hosting of important foreign communications bases, we're not suggesting for one moment that there have never been spies operating here. But as any serious student of espionage would know the likelihood of professional spies hanging out with members of an anti-establishment movement like the Communist Party known to be under close surveillance, are slim indeed.

McKnights omissions are many and serious. He doesn't tell us about the close and subservient relationship between ASIO and overseas agencies, its ongoing work with all state police Special Branches and their later counterparts, and only mentions in passing the draconian anti-democratic 1979 ASIO Act which gave it sweeping new powers to bug telephones, intercept mail and search premises, as well as inflicting savage penalties on anyone daring to expose its agents.

The post-60s period in particular, which is far more relevant to today's political situation, is dealt with in a superficial and highly inaccurate way, and once again appears to be based on ASIO's version of events as transmitted by his ASIO collaborators.

ASIO's fostering of Ustasha terrorism in Australia is also substantially played down. Things got so bad that in 1970, after a wave of bombings and bashings, Yugoslav's assistant secretary for foreign affairs, Vladimir Rolovic, paid us a visit and handed, either to the Australian Prime Minister of the day or to a senior cabinet minister, a highly confidential aide-memoire containing specific details of Ustasha activities in Australia, the contents of which were deliberately leaked to the Ustasha.

As a consequence, in April 1971 as Ambassador to Sweden, Rolovic was assassinated by two Ustasha thugs who boasted in their newspapers that his killing was a reprisal for exposing these details during his Australian visit. This episode, which was a vital part of the background to the Murphy raid on ASIO immediately prior to the visit to Australia of Yugoslav PM Bijedic in 1973, was not mentioned at all.

Instead, he concentrates on a handful of well-known individuals, mainly in Sydney, when the major political influences up until the mid-1980s, were centred in Melbourne, no doubt a major reason for ASIO setting up its national HQ in St Kilda Road. Federal intervention into the Victorian ALP in 1970, which was directly responsible for the formation the then militant and powerful Socialist Left, would have been grist to ASIO's mill, as many of its members had earlier or ongoing connections with the Communist Party.

It was obvious to most SL activists that ASIO was extremely active in Victorian Labor affairs during the 1970s and 1980s, which makes McKnight's claim that "it is likely that ASIO surveillance of the Victorian ALP continued into the 1960s, if not the early 1970s", look rather silly. The destruction of the SL as a progressive force and the takeover of the party by the NSW Right is part of a much bigger story and has yet to be told.

His response to the Whitlam period, especially to the 1975 Constitutional Coup which changed the face of Australian politics, is best characterised by his statement that "research on the ASIO-CIA nexus in 1975 has not been a priority for this author". Oh, really! He concludes with another escape clause, which is patently untrue. "No-one has yet 'proved' that the CIA played a role in the crises of 1974 and 1975 ... Nor will it occur until a reputable (and courageous) source within Australian or American intelligence comes forward and lists dates, places and names."

He ignores the evidence of Christopher Boyce a "cypher clerk working with an electronics company involved in the CIA's space communications network in California ... who monitored signals passing through the CIA/NSA base at Pine Gap which showed massive CIA interference and deceptions against the Australian Government".

He ignores statements from Victor Marchetti, co-author of The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, written after 14 years' experience as a CIA specialist who, when asked about the 1975 sacking of Whitlam, told an ABC journalist that "the major purpose of the CIA is to get rid of a government they did not like, one that was not 'sufficiently co-operative' for their own purposes ... in a sense it's a Chile, but a much more muted and sophisticated and subtle form".

The statements of Boyce and Marchetti form part of the chapter "Scenario for a Coup" in our book Rooted in Secrecy (1982). Similar material appeared in John Pilger's A Secret Country and Marian Wilkinson's film Allies.

So of course there are "reputable" people who have been prepared to take great risks to ferret out information and provide a coherent analysis about the role of secret agencies in Australia and their cringing subservience to the US military industrial complex.

These agencies, which are totally beyond the control of governments, even if they had the will to do anything about them, exist to maintain a favourable political and economic climate for the operation and expansion of the international corporate sector. Their "natural" enemies are trade unions, environmentalists, feminists, and those perceived to threaten any aspect of capitalist domination. None of this is even hinted at in McKnights book. As a result, the lack of a proper analysis leads him to the false and nonsensical conclusion that ASIO's activities are now focussed on the "Right".

You don't need to be a Maxwell Smart to figure out what ASIO is doing with its $40 million annual stipend (known) and its many hundred of full and part-time employees.

They're certainly not pursuing the "Right", who are comfortably ensconced in company board rooms, mining companies, newspaper offices, police forces and the military, as well as occupying top jobs in government. As always, they're running the show, which is probably why it's in such a hell of a mess.

It looks as if we have no choice but to reactivate CAPP, the Committee for the Abolition of Political Police!
[Joan Coxsedge and Gerry Harant are members of the Committee for the Abolition of Political Police]

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